Keeping the Sea Lanes Open: Mine Countermeasures

Tugboats pull the mine counter measure ship USS Devastator (MCM 6) toward Mina Salman pier in Bahrain after the ship was floated off the Military Sealift Command chartered M/V Tern, a float-on/float-off transport ship. Devastator and three other MCM ships arrived in Bahrain the same day. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric/Released)

By Rear Adm. John Kirby, Chief of Information

At the most basic level, the mission of our Navy is to defend our homeland while keeping global sea lanes open and free. In fact, the latter actually helps us do the former, since so much of our nation’s prosperity and security comes for the free flow of maritime commerce.

Naval strategist Rear Adm. Bradley Fiske said it best, way back in 1916: “As long as a maritime country carried on trade within its own borders exclusively, as long as it lived within itself, so long as its people did not go to countries oversea, a navy was not necessary. But when a maritime country is not contented to live within its own borders, then a navy becomes essential to guard its people and their possessions on the highways of the sea; to enforce, not municipal or national law, as an army does, but international law.”

To enforce that law and to defend those highways, the Navy must expend the appropriate effort, training and resources on the threats and obstacles which hinder this flow of commerce. One such threat — cheap and deadly — is the naval mine.

Mines are indiscriminate, easily procured and laid. And they have a potent psychological effect on commercial shippers. Not only can they sink vessels, they can grind the gears of international business to a halt. By limiting our access, naval mines can also put at jeopardy our ability to defend national interests in a given area or chokepoint.

And there are vital chokepoints all over the world.

Consistent with the new Defense Strategy, we will place a renewed emphasis on those chokepoints in the Asia-Pacific region while continuing to focus on the same in the Middle East. We need the capability to find and clear mines in both these critical regions — and we’ve got it.

The Navy has four MCM ships forward deployed to Japan to meet these requirements in the Pacific. And in the CENTCOM region, we counter the mine threat with eight MCM ships. Four of these are based in Bahrain; the other four are deployed there from San Diego.

Senior leadership has decided, in the near term, to extend the four San Diego-based MCMs, sustaining this vital capability there at the request of the combatant commander. That decision understandably results in a heightened operational tempo for the rotational crews.

To relieve some of that stress and bring our Sailors home to their families for longer periods of time, we’re getting ready to stand up two additional MCM crews, manned by Individual Augmentees (IAs). Indeed, just today we released a NAVADMIN calling for volunteers for this important duty.

Meeting this capability over the long term is going to require more than just ships. Eventually, we are going to bring those four MCMs home, but even before we do, we’re going to start flowing over – and sustaining — other high-tech mine-hunting capabilities.

 

We’ve learned an awful lot over the last 10-15 years about this important mission, and we’ve invested mightily in developing new tools, new sensors and new procedures. So, look for us to introduce forward a healthy mix of manned and unmanned MCM systems, like Sea Fox, Mk-18 underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV) systems. To an extent, we see these powerful capabilities as a bridge of sorts to the eventual introduction of the Littoral Combat Ship over there, with its mine warfare package aboard.

Once again, I find Bradley Fiske instructive. “Strategy is to a navy,” he said, “what mind is to a man. It determines its character, its composition, its aims; and so far as external conditions will permit, the results which it accomplishes.”

We’ve got a great strategy. We’ve got a great way forward against a challenging threat. And we’ve done the hard work needed to make sure that — in both composition and character — we will continue meeting the needs of our combatant commanders.

Through a combination of legacy and emerging mine hunting technology and by working with allies and partners in the region, we’re going to keep sea lanes open and safe — with international commerce flowing as expected.

It makes perfect sense. And I’m pretty sure even old Fiske would approve.

 

From left to right, mine countermeasures ships USS Pioneer (MCM 9), USS Devastator (MCM 6), USS Sentry (MCM 3) and USS Dexrous (MCM 13) approach for an astern replenishment-at-sea with Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15). Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock (LPD) ship, was converted and reclassified in April to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Toni Burton/Released)